Picture Taker: Photographs by Ken Elkins

Nov 21, 2005

These photos, all black and white, are stunning. Engaging, beautifully composed, many telling a story in a flash, this collection is worth anyone's attention.

Picture Taker: Photographs by Ken Elkins

Ken Elkins took photographs for the Anniston Star for decades, thousands and thousands of them--local events, stock car races, beauty pageants, high school football games--and won his share of prizes along the way.

Now, retired, he has selected one hundred of his images to be collected in this volume, entitled Picture Taker because that's what the folk of northeast Alabama called him all those years.

These photos, all black and white, are stunning. Engaging, beautifully composed, many telling a story in a flash, this collection is worth anyone's attention.

It bears a lot of resemblance to and compares favorably with the documentary photos of Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, and Dorothea Lange. The photographs of those artists were taken mainly in the 1930s.

Echoing those earlier photos, this collection includes a picture of a snake handler, heavily laden, a baptism in a muddy creek, and two of Klan rallies. But though these, too, could be images of the '30s, they were shot in the 1960s through the nineties. Not enough has changed.

What are these one hundred photos of?

Well, almost all of them are of living creatures, sometimes animals, usually people. There are only seven of inanimate objects: a photo of a sofa, rotting in a field; a car, slowly rusting in a field, with small trees and weeds growing up through it; a small outbuilding, with bowed rooftree, slowly heading for the earth--you get the idea: all these objects returning to their origins, warming the air of Calhoun County with what Robert Frost called "the slow smokeless burning of decay."

There are about twenty pictures of children. Elkins is quoted in the Afterword by Basil Penny of the Atlanta Constitution as saying: "Kids. They're so natural, so candid, you can hardly miss getting a good picture when you shoot a kid."

He's pretty much right. The pictures of kids are terrific, but why? I think it is because these kids are in motion, in action, running, playing, sliding down a mud hill, dancing in the rain, playing marbles. And they are smiling, with teeth, and they have eyes full of hope and life and light.

This is unfortunately not always, or even usually, true for the adults, and the majority of Elkins' photos are of adults, usually older people, black and white, male and female. In the aggregate, it is not a pretty picture. The photos are striking, but the message is depressing.

Though these people are dignified, rugged, formidable, the eyes of many of them are blank, dark, dead, defeated. Decades of poverty and frustration, back-breaking toil and a lack of hope, I would guess, have killed the spark in the eyes of many of these people who, if photographed as children, would have shown the lively, mischievous eyes of the kids in this collection. These are excellent portraits, but they are, in my opinion, painful to think about. There is in some faces, suspicion, in some, anger, in some, surrender.

They are not all disturbing, however. One remarkable photo is of Ernest Marsteller of Ashville, who makes and plays his own violins. The picture that seems to be everyone's favorite is of a car on Quintard Street in Anniston with two ponies' heads sticking out the back seat window. The driver took out the back seat and got the ponies in there somehow.

As I was moving through these pictures, responding to them and studying them, one struck me especially as an anomaly. It is a photograph of a middle-aged man standing in a field, with a horse. His posture is alert. He is smiling, with teeth. His face shows pleasure, optimism. I looked up this photo in the index and the man was the county agent.

Rick Bragg looks at these photos with the empathy of a native son. These are his people, and he loves them and they love him back.

He laments that the world of this volume is passing. Bragg concludes his Foreword by saying that Elkins' photographs explain why so many people from northeast Alabama never leave: "Because Elkins shows the reasons to stay."

On the contrary, when I see the ragged clothes and exhausted faces, I wonder why everyone didn't leave. There is much difference in the eyes of at least two beholders. Have a look for yourself.